Standing on the grounds of a former General Motors factory on 22nd Street and Michigan Avenue in Southwest Detroit, a mile from where Ford is building its autonomous vehicle hub in Corktown, NBA legend Chris Webber stands with a sledgehammer in his hand.
Webber and his business partner Lavetta Willis and cannabis investor and executive Jason Wild smashed some concrete on Tuesday to mark the groundbreaking of a $50 million investment to transform an old factory into a cutting-edge cannabis “conservatory,” as Detroit-native Webber calls it.
“I love my city,” says Webber, who played high school ball at Detroit Country Day and then at University of Michigan before becoming the NBA’s number-one draft pick in 1993. “I want to be the shining jewel of cannabis, I want us to be the example of diversity, the example of a village of people that have stayed and made a decision to help a city.”
Players Only Holdings, Webber’s cannabis brand, will transform the nine-acre industrial site into the Webber Wellness Conservatory. The site will feature a 60,000-square foot cultivation facility, which will be run by Michigan-based cannabis company Gage Growth, an 8,000 square foot Players Only dispensary, a consumption lounge and Cookies U, a cannabis job training program run by the Bay Area-based cannabis company cofounded by hip-hop artist Berner.
Webber says he hopes to have the dispensary open by March Madness, but the cultivation site will be open within 18 months to start growing product. The lounge will be open by next summer. Webber says this is the first phase of what will become a $175 million investment in Detroit.
There will also be a free GED program at the Webber Wellness Conservatory. The program will be a partnership between Medgar Evers College, which is based in Brooklyn, New York, and Cookies U. The GED program was inspired by Webber’s family.
Webber was raised by his mother, who taught in Detroit’s public school system for 30 years, and his father, who worked at General Motors’ Poletown factory for three decades. At the dinner table every night, his father, who grew up in Mississippi and didn’t go to high school, studied for his GED. His mother, sitting right next to him, would study for her Masters degree.
“I want to help people like my father and mother, people who love their family, who protect their family, who put food on the table and make Detroit a better place,” says Webber. “If I can do that for others, then I’ve done my job.”
Webber started Webber Wellness, the parent company through which he runs his cannabis business, in 2015 after teaming up with his longtime business partner Levetta Willis. Webber first met Willis while he was playing basketball. Willis had started a sneaker company called Dada Supreme and was looking to partner with a player. She brought him in as an owner of Dada and he started wearing the kicks on the court. Now Willis and Webber plan to expand Players Only to 10 retail locations across the U.S. over the next two years, the first being in Detroit. Webber has other cannabis investments, and he says in total he’s put in tens of millions of dollars into marijuana.
Michigan is the eighth largest cannabis market in the U.S. According to estimates by Matt McGinley, an analyst who covers the industry at Needham, Michigan made $985 million in marijuana sales last year. By 2025, McGinley says that the state will be the sixth largest in the country with $2.5 billion in annual sales.
Webber says his goal with Players Only is simple: “We’re just really trying to be profitable, address the ills of the past, get a diverse group together and go out with a bunch of fun and inspire people,” he says.
The NBA legend is also investing in others. Webber has teamed up with Jason Wild, a former pharmacist turned cannabis investor and CEO of Terrascend, to launch a $100 million private fund focused on investing in companies led by entrepreneurs of color. The majority of cannabis companies are run and owned by white people, with less than 10% run by Black and Hispanic people. One of the fund’s investments is in Lowd, a Black-owned craft cannabis company in Oregon cofounded by Jesce Horton.
Wild also runs JW Asset Management, a hedge fund with over $2 billion in assets under management. His company Terrascend inked a deal earlier this month to buy Michigan-based Gage Growth Corp, for $545 million. Gage has partnered with Players Only to run its cultivation site.
The son of a Sunday school teacher and a church deacon, Webber didn’t grow up smoking pot. The first time Webber got into cannabis, he says, was when he was 29 years old. At the height of his 15-year basketball career he suffered a knee injury while playing against the Dallas Mavericks during the second game of the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals. He went for an alley-oop and felt like someone kicked him in the knee. He thought that was the “beginning of the end of my career,” Webber says.
After surgery, he was put on pain killers, anti-inflammatory medication, and other pharmaceuticals. But then a doctor suggested he try medical marijuana. As a player on the Sacramento Kings at the time, the medical marijuana industry was exploding in California.
“If it wasn’t for cannabis and some wonderful doctors in holistic medicine, I definitely would not have had a wonderful four years after that surgery,” he says.
He still uses cannabis for pain management. “I’m a guy who wakes up in the morning and can’t get out of bed and walk on a wood floor because my feet are so damaged,” he says, referring to the physical toll being a pro ball player had on his body. “We all deserve not to be in pain.”
Webber, whose favorite strains is a heavy Indica called C-4 and a hybrid grown by Cookies named after the NBA great Gary Payton, enjoys the ritual of breaking up weed and rolling it up in hemp wrap. “That’s how I usually like to end my day,” he says.
Another important reason Webber is up front about how he uses cannabis is that he thinks it’s important to change the way society perceives marijuana and make sure as legalization spreads no one gets left behind.
“I want to change the narrative for the people who were demonized the most and the people that were targeted by unfair laws,” he says. “Now, some of those same law makers are now on the side of cannabis. When did that change? How can you benefit off of that and people still be in jail?”
To be sure, Webber is not the first NBA star to pivot into the marijuana industry. Isiah Thomas, another NBA Hall of Famer, is the CEO and vice chairman of the board at Colombian hemp and cannabis producer One World Pharma. Al Harrington, who started his 16-year career with the Pacers, launched his own company in 2011 called Viola. NBA great Allen Iverson recently joined Harrington’s company. Brooklyn Net Kevin Durant, through his venture capital firm Thirty Five Ventures, has investment in cannabis.
The day before the groundbreaking, Webber took his father to the factory, which stands a few miles away from where his father worked for GM in Poletown. Although his father never tried pot—he never allowed alcohol in the house and “doesn’t understand” cannabis, says Webber—he’s happy his son is building something in his hometown.
While walking around the old factory, the older Webber looked at his son: “‘Oh, boy, you better make this work for Detroit,’” Webber recalls his father telling him. “So, I got my marching orders form my dad.”